Learning about Soyfoods, a Book Review


John H. Cox

The Skinny on Soy
By Marie Oser
Learning about soyfoods is on the top of my list these days.  I was recently tapped to lead the Soyfoods Association of North America (SANA), the trade group which represents soyfoods manufacturers, soy processors, and soybean farmers. SANA’s mission is to increase consumption of soy-based foods and beverages through educating the consumer about the health benefits and nutritional advantages of soyfoods, making soy protein the preferred source of plant protein.

My recent reading included last year’s “The Skinny on Soy” by Marie Oser.  Ms. Oser is a best-selling author, healthy lifestyle expert and the Host and Executive Producer of VegTV (www.vegtv.com).


The Skinny on Soy by Marie Oser

Prompted to write the book because of the many questions and accusations directed at soy and all of the products made from it, Oser believes the questions and rumors are merely a backlash stemming from all of the good news about soy. Soy is one of the most researched plants on Earth, and its nutritional benefits have been documented repeatedly in clinical studies.

Take a look at SANA’s Top 5 Reasons Soy Belongs on Your Plate: http://www.soyfoods.org/blog/to-eat-or-not-to-eat-top-5-reasons-soy-belongs-on-your-plate

Like other beans, soy is a legume that grows in a pod.  If you’ve spent any time on a highway in America then you’ve seen soy growing, about waist high as you drive along.  Soybeans are an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals, soluble and insoluble fiber, and unique phytochemicals that can prevent many chronic diseases such as breast cancer and heart disease .

One of the more widely known benefits of soy protein is the prevention of coronary heart disease.  This benefit really matters. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S., with over 600,000 Americans dying each year from heart disease. 

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:

Twenty-five grams of soy protein per day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.

This clear support for the benefits of soy has undeniably been a leading factor in the increased soyfoods consumption over the years.

For more information on the health claim go to: http://www.soyfoods.org/nutrition-health/soy-for-healthy-living/soy-for-heart-disease/soy-protein-and-heart-disease-health-claim

This claim though, has been challenged, most notably by The Weston A. Price Foundation, a non-profit named in honor of an early twentieth-century dentist.  The Price Foundation promotes the consumption of beef, pork, and other meat products high in saturated fat and cholesterol – in short, the opposite of soy in many ways.  Oser takes on the Price Foundation in her book and compares the foundation’s unusual dietary recommendations to those from more mainstream organizations like the U.S. FDA and the Centers for Disease Control.

It is certainly true that when industries feel threatened by the value of soy they often make claims that do not stand up to rigorous examination, and unfortunately frighten and confuse people along the way.

One of SANA’s objectives is to dispel unsubstantiated myths about the value and safety of soy.  We do this by publishing factual, timely, science-based information on soyfoods, while keeping readers up to date as new studies become available.

Oser’s book covers many of the common myths about soyfoods and explains the facts.  Unfortunatley, soy has been falsely accused of many things, development of breasts in men, triggering Alzheimer ’s disease, and even causing cancer.  Of all the problems associated with the modest consumption of soy, I can only find one situation where caution is warranted, and that’s in the case of thyroid conditions.

The thyroid gland’s essential function is to convert iodine found in food into thyroid hormones to control the metabolism.  Patients that have any type of thyroid dysfunction should have their thyroid levels measured before consuming large quantities of soy.  This is because soy, like many cruciferous vegetables and legumes, can suppress the thyroid gland by interfering with the uptake of iodine, thus making it more difficult to produce thyroid hormones.

Other soy myths are carefully addressed and debunked by Oser.  In each case, she concludes that there is no reason to be concerned about eating reasonable amounts of soyfoods, and she explains why soy protein is so healthy and nutritious.

Hundreds of clinical studies have proven the many health benefits of soy.  Providing high-quality protein without the high saturated fat and cholesterol content of many animal protein sources, soy protein is the only plant protein that contains all eight of the essential amino acids just like an animal protein, therefore making it the only complete non-animal protein. Whole soy foods are also an excellent source of fiber, B vitamins, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. Further, soy remains unmatched among vegetable proteins, and so it’s not surprising that it is the preferred source of vegetable protein.

The variety of soyfoods available to consumers continues to grow.   Available for decades at “natural” foods stores and certain retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, soyfoods can now be found in more mainstream grocers like Giant, Safeway, Kroger, Publix and Hy-Vee.   Having always enjoyed soymilk, I find offering my children edamame, or green vegetable soybeans, is a great way to get them to enjoy eating protein, vitamins and fiber, in a tasty snack they’ll continue to come back to.

When you mention “soyfoods” the first thing that most people think of is tofu.   A popular food in Asia for thousands of years, tofu is made from soymilk in the same way cheese is made from milk.   Because the flavor is relatively neutral and it easily absorbs flavor, tofu is a versatile, easy food to cook with.  In the same way that Westerners rely on meats, tofu is a staple in many Eastern diets. Tofu is enjoying a surge in popularity at restaurant and kitchen tables throughout the U.S.

Tips on enjoying soy can be found on the soyfoods.org website at  www.soyfoods.org/enjoy-soy/tips-to-enjoy-soy. Also available is a section on cooking with soyfoods at www.soyfoods.org/enjoy-soy/cooking-with-soyfoods.

Another popular staple of a soyfood diet, soymilk has been in the news recently due to increasing consumer interest in healthy, plant-based beverage alternatives.   A nutritious and delicious drink, soymilk provides high quality protein and critical minerals and vitamins for those who cannot, or chose not to, consume cow’s milk.  Some argue that the term “milk” should only be used for something that comes from a cow.  This logic is antiquated. The term “soymilk” has been used for decades. Clearly, consumers know that what they’re drinking doesn’t come from a cow.

As the world’s population continues to multiply, and our need for sustainable resources grows, soyfoods will be an increasingly important food. Oser cites the National Soybean Research Laboratory’s finding that soybeans can produce at least twice as much protein per acre than any other major vegetable or grain crop.  Soyfoods prove time and again that they are an excellent low-cost protein solution for feeding the world’s hungry populations both today and as our population continues to expand.  Remaining unmatched among vegetable proteins, it’s not surprising that soy is the preferred source of vegetable protein.

The Skinny on Soy was a great way to help me get up to speed on soyfoods.  As delicious as it is healthy, I’m excited to learn more about soy, and to help expand awareness of this important food.  If you’re involved in the production of soyfoods I hope you’ll contact me to see how you can help SANA’s efforts.

Here’s to soy, and to the soyfoods so many of us are enjoying every day!

For more information, contact John Cox at jcox@soyfoods.org.

*This post was  co-published at: http://www.soyfoods.org/newsroom/soyinfusion.
Copyright 2017, Soyfoods Association of North America. 

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What Should You Expect From Your Trade Association?

The question of association value comes up over and over again.  Business leaders  frequently ask their representative on an association board or committee to justify the expense of their association participation.  The question boils down to this: what’s the value proposition of trade association participation for my company?shutterstock_1766028

Participation can be expensive. The “expense” of trade association participation includes several elements with both direct and indirect costs:

  • Membership Dues – why are they so high, how are they used?
  • Participation Costs – travel and time away from work.
  • Opportunity Costs – does participation in the association really help my business or does it just benefit my competitors and help my staff network their way to a better position?

Association leaders come to expect  questions about the value proposition of the association membership.  The question, asked in many ways is essentially this:

What are we getting for our membership?

I found a basic guide to assessing association membership value in Running Your Own Company, An Entrepreneur’s Field Manual, a compilation of Paul Riecks’ best SmartCEO columns on leadership and management.  Riecks offers advice on common problems faced by owners and operators of small-medium sized businesses.

Here’s Riecks’ list of what you should expect from your trade association. I’ve added my thoughts based on experience.

  1. The Association Communicates Well

This is a pretty obvious requirement, but in the age of social media and information overload in general this requires some qualification.  It’s important that your association communicate with you about things that no other organization can.  Associations must be curators of information, only sending you content that you can’t get yourself from the Internet, and always adding an explanation of how it affects your business.

  1. The Association is Passionate about Members’ Success

I think many associations forget that they need to help their members succeed in business.  There is a tendency to write mission statements that favor consumers or some greater public good.  I think associations should leave the greater public good to others.  Association resources should be devoted to helping the members win whatever game they’re playing.

  1. The Association Balances the Concerns of Different-Sized Members.

Healthy industries include companies of many different types and sizes, but these companies have different needs when it comes to government regulation and compliance.  Not all companies are involved in every market and this needs to be considered too.

  1. The Association is Responsive to Member Requests.

The association staff should be passionate about serving the members.  As consumers we all know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of lackluster service.  Associations that tolerate poor service and member interaction are asking for unhappy members.  Make sure your team receives customer service training as soon as they join the organization so that they know that the organization makes it a priority.

  1. The Association Sponsors Good Meetings.

One of the basic functions of an association is connecting people and companies.  Even direct competitors sometimes come together to jointly resolve industry problems.  Competitors that won’t have a drink in the same bar will attend an association meeting and join forces to protect their industry.  Associations are about connecting people more than anything else.

  1. The Association Collects and Disseminates Industry Data.

Competition from for-profit service providers is a real threat to the value proposition of many associations.  One clear advantage that associations have over for-profit competitors is access to information and their members trust.  All sorts of industry data can be collected, sorted and published in ways that benefit the member companies.

  1. The Association Sponsors Professional Certifications

Associations have a unique opportunity to provide professional certifications for their member companies’ professional staff or for products or services offered by the companies.  Many times it is association certifications or guidelines that prevent or delay costlier and less efficient government regulation.

  1. The Association Represents the Membership and the Industry Before Legislatures

Lobbying is frequently the first thing people think of when they’re asked what an association does for them.  Assessing the effectiveness of your association’s advocacy program requires a detailed evaluation and an understanding of what can be accomplished.  Government relations programs come in many shapes and sizes, but your association almost certainly needs to have one.

  1. The Association Rotates Board Membership and Officer Slots on a Regular Basis

The leadership of an effective association changes on a regular basis.  If the association has had the same president, officers, or directors for a long time it’s unlikely that it’s an effective organization.


If your company is a member of one or more trade associations and you don’t have a clear sense of how the association performs in these categories, then you should take a look at your membership.  An examination can simply mean asking your trade association representative to answer the questions above, or it can be a more comprehensive audit.  I’ve been on both sides of an association audit and I would be happy to discuss the process with you.

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Trade Association Advocacy and the Political Conventions

Well it’s here, the two weeks every four years when the political parties hold their nominating conventions.  In DC shorthand it’s referred to as “Cleveland” or “Philadelphia” as in “are you going to Cleveland?”Trumpshutterstock_283689917

There’s been a wave of reporting recently about trade associations and corporations reducing their investments in convention activities, particularly the Republican one this week in Cleveland.  Here’s the Washington Post story.

CEO Update, the source for association executive news has a similar article here.

I last attended a national political convention in 1996.  The location was the San Diego Convention Center and the Republican nominees were Robert Dole and Jack Kemp.  That year I learned how much happens in a convention host city outside the convention hall and I made lasting personal connections with people involved in government and politics.  John Feehery of the Feehery Theory reminded me that Jack Kemp was the big news that year, but not big enough to stop Bill Clinton’s re-election.

Trade associations, particularly small-medium sized ones, are sometimes unsure of just how politically engaged they should be.  This confusion extends to the political conventions and as a result opportunities for valuable engagement are missed every four years.

Participation at a political convention doesn’t just mean listening to the convention hall speeches and going to parties.  Many associations and corporations hold policy events, frequently a breakfast or lunch event in the host city.  Hosting a policy-oriented event rather than a social event can create objective and measurable progress toward your associations’ legislative goals. Conventions are more than people wearing funny hats.  These policy briefings can be substantive, and include discussions of your industries most pressing legislative items.

Conventions also require lots of volunteers.  That’s how I got involved in the ‘96 convention in San Diego, as a volunteer scheduling media interviews for Members of Congress.  If you’re a trade association executive that can’t convince your association to invest in a convention-related event perhaps you can volunteer for one of the political parties.

The articles linked above suggest that associations and corporations are for some vague reason spending even less at this year’s conventions, particularly the Republican one this week in Cleveland.  Scaling back an association’s investment in convention-related outreach because of questions about Trump’s readiness to lead doesn’t seem rational to me.  Someone said that involving your association in Cleveland creates the risk that your industry will be seen in a negative light.  What risks are created by not engaging with the leaders, and future leaders, that will create the laws that your industry operates under?  The government’s impact on your industry isn’t fading, so why should your political outreach?

Donald Trump isn’t universally popular, but neither is Hillary Clinton.  The political conventions are much more than an acceptance speech from the party candidate.  They are a gathering of the top leaders from the parties and an unparalleled way to get visibility for your industry, its leaders, and their political and legislative objectives.

At the end of the day your association’s engagement at the political conventions should match its engagement on Capitol Hill.  Conventions also offer the rare potential for state and federal impact all at once.   The political conventions are the only place that both state and federal political leaders all come together.  And many state political leaders of today are the federal leaders of tomorrow.

If you’re involved in an association and they’re not participating in Cleveland or Philadelphia, take some time over the next two weeks to reconsider this so that you don’t make the same mistake again in four years.

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What is Association Management?

This summer I’m looking for opportunities to explain association management and share how we do it at Verto Solutions. One of my earlier blog posts included a basic overview of association management. The model is relatively new, and there are still many trade associations and non-profits that could benefit from the efficiency and flexibility of association management.

Verto Solutions Association Management

The associations we partner with at Verto Solutions are from diverse industries, but most are in food or finance. We’re prepared to help any association, but we’ve traditionally been strong in these areas.

Some of our associations are US-focused and others are global.

The budgets of the associations headquartered at Verto Solutions range from $500,000 – $5,000,000. We collect their membership dues, pay their bills, arrange independent audits of their accounts, and in some cases help them invest their reserve funds.  We can help associations of any size, but association management is particularly good for small-mid sized ones.shutterstock_219844360

When associations use our services they spend less time worrying about things like office space, employees & computers, and more time on their mission-critical objectives.

We provide a wide ranges of services to associations. In addition to financial management we support their communications, advocacy, education & training, and event planning.

We’re also known for our expertise in scientific and regulatory affairs for the food industry. We have four PhDs and three lawyers, with considerable experience with food ingredient safety and regulation.

Associations use technology to manage information and connect their members. We manage membership databases, create and maintain web sites for each association, and manage special data collection projects. We’re also creating content for education and advocacy, including social media programs for our associations.

Our offices in downtown DC serve as the headquarters for the associations, and this includes two conference rooms for board and committee meetings, or to prep for meetings at the Federal agencies or on Capitol Hill.

Our sister company, Verto Legal Solutions, provides legal counsel to associations, both general counsel services as well as counsel on specialized regulatory matters.

What distinguishes Verto Solutions from other association management companies is our people. Long-term involvement with the associations, in-depth understanding of the issues, and a real partnership between the staff and the association leaders.

What is Association Management?

There are two primary association operation models used today.  The newer model, association management, is generally more flexible and effective for associations of any size, but particularly those that are small to medium-size.

shutterstock_30840886What does it mean when an association is managed and what are the advantages?

We live in an age of specialization.  Generalists are less common in all fields.  Law, medicine, engineering, marketing and advertising, and in many other areas, specialization results in greater technical proficiency and effectiveness; management of associations and other non-profit organizations, charities and professional societies is no different.  These groups are increasingly supported by professional managers. This is part of a huge trend in which companies are trying to find the best resources to solve problems.

At Verto Solutions we work primarily with trade associations, but this management approach works for all non-profit organizations.

Non-profit corporations have a governing body, usually a board of directors.  The governing body manages the operation of the organization, usually by hiring a senior staff person that has the title of “president” or “executive director.”  This person in turn manages a larger staff that executes the plan created by the board of directors.

Here is where the difference between the two models is most apparent.  An association with their own staff “owns the staff,” meaning they have employees with all the costs and benefits that come along with them.  A managed association on the other hand has a contract with an association management company guaranteeing that the company will provide professional services to that association.  The scope of these contracts varies and the management of the staff can vary as well, but in the most basic form, this is the difference between an association with a staff and a managed association.

The association management model provides more options when it comes to matching available resources to the association or non-profit program needs.  Organizations employing their own staff have greater capacity from the start, but there’s a challenge managing or supervising this capacity and these positions add fixed costs that will only go away if someone is terminated.

The advantages to association management are many but the big ones are:

  • Controlling Costs
  • Eliminating Employee-Related Risks
  • Access to More Skilled and Experienced Professionals

The advantages of costs control and elimination of employment-related risks are closely linked.  That’s because employment issues frequently drive up costs for associations.  Hiring, managing, and firing employees consumes resources.  When an association signs a contract with an association management company its responsibilities are clearly laid out in the contract.

Another advantage of association management is access to talent.  Associations employing their own staff sometimes end up with amazing people; but amazing people are usually expensive employees.  Association management gives organizations access to highly trained and experienced professionals that come with the experience of helping other organizations solve many of the same challenges.  Imagine being a small or mid-sized association but having access to the most talented association professionals available; this is association management.

Executing a management contract with an association management company is a great cost control tool for associations.  The scope of the work, the extent of the charges, and general liability of the organization are all limited by a properly drafted association management contract.

Elements of a Successful Association Management Agreement:

  • Alignment of values
  • Frequent communication
  • Clarity of expectations
  • Regular assessment of progress

Association management contracts are structured in several different ways.  Some associations are charged hourly rates, based on budgets and projects that are approved by the board annually or quarterly.  Other associations pay a monthly amount for an agreed upon scope or level of service.  The level of service can be as specific as the association wants.  At Verto Solutions we use both models depending on what the client association wants.

Whatever the type or size of your association, charity or professional society, association management is good way to control costs and reduce employee-related risks while giving your organization access to the best and the brightest.

Contact me if you would like to discuss your association’s needs.

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Association Management Basics: Successful Leadership Transitions

I just finished Hans Finzel’s Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make. This book is nearly 20 years old, but it includes some timeless advice for leaders, with a particularly good chapter on successful leadership transitions.Top Ten

The transition to a new senior association executive presents a great opportunity for an organization to grow and innovate, but transitions that aren’t handled well can set an organization back for years Finzel says.

Finzel also says that anticipating and preparing for a leadership transition is something good leaders should do from their very first day on the job. Finzel says ideally, an association executive should identify and mentor their successor.

An executive leadership transition is a great way to propel an association forward, reflecting the updated goals of the governing board. Leadership transitions should be seen as an exciting opportunity for all parties – the board, the new and departing leaders, and the staff. An association or non-profit needs a steady flow of new ideas and fresh blood and a new leader brings these.

Fumbled leadership transitions do happen, but the chances are slim.

Here’s a partial list of things to keep in mind to insure your association’s successful transition to a new leader.

  • Mutual respect – Both the incoming and exiting executives must have respect for what the other brings to the table.
  • Efficiency – Departing leaders that stay around too long do much more damage than those that don’t stay long enough.
  • Cooperation – The team that’s staying in place should bend over backwards to welcome the new leader and have faith in the selection made by the board. Any resistance from the team will harm the organization in the short term and ultimately lead to someone’s departure.
  • Board Involvement – No other task is more important for a board than selecting a new leader. The Board must be clear and specific about what they’re looking for in the new leader and their performance goals must be reasonable.
  • Trust the Experts – If your organization has the resources to use a search firm to find a new leader they should do it. Search firms, commonly called “headhunters” offer comprehensive services far beyond just finding potential candidates. They’ve been involved with countless leadership transitions so their advice should be encouraged.

In Finzel’s book he says that “finishing well is an important measure of success in leadership.” Exiting gracefully can be a challenge, but it’s important to remember that when one door closes another one will inevitably open. There’s another organization that needs the help of the departing leader. It’s just a matter of finding them.

Association leaders new and old should read Beth Brooks’ book, The New CEO’s Guide, Advice for the First-Time, Aspiring, or Current Association Executives. Brooks is the President and CEO of the Texas Society of Association Executives. This is one of the newer books in the world of association management guides, and it’s great for both new and current senior association executives. Her style is very readable, and Brooks covers all of the basic elements of strong association leadership.

Travel Notes: New Orleans, Mobile & Fairhope


Faulkner House Books, Pirates Alley, the French Quarter of New Orleans


St. Louis Cathedral New Orleans

I had the good fortune to miss last week’s blizzard in DC. I was on the Gulf Coast, where it almost never snows, for work and pleasure. Notable stops included Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. It was my first meal there is about 35 years and I was expecting to find that the Garden District classic had been left behind in the incredible new cuisine renaissance taking place down there. But it hasn’t, and my dinner there was the best of many good meals last week in New Orleans.  I also visited the fascinating National World War II Museum, St. Louis Cathedral, and Faulkner House Books.  Faulkner House is located behind the St. Louis Cathedral and it’s where William Faulkner lived during the 1920s.  Today, it’s a tiny bookstore specializing in first edition fiction by Southern authors.

In Alabama, the highlight was visiting family and good friends in Fairhope and Mobile. I also finally made it to Callaghan’s Irish Social Club. An old pub in downtown Mobile that has become an intimate concert venue for serious singer songwriters. We enjoyed shows by Dylan LeBlanc and Andrew Duhon.

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On the Road for Flavor Creation

Santa Monica sunrise on an early morning run

Santa Monica sunrise on an early morning run

I had a great trip to Southern California earlier this week.  The Flavor & Extract Manufacturers Association hosted a workshop in Santa Monica for food industry professionals interested in learning more about flavor creation. This was not a course for flavorists, the artists that create flavors. They have a professional society that trains and accredits them.  This was a course for people that wanted to learn more about what flavorists do.

Consumer awareness of flavors is pretty low, so it’s no surprise that people don’t know about flavor creation. Thousands of consumer products contain flavors, added to improve taste. The flavor industry has a digital platform called Flavorfacts so that consumers have a place to learn about these important food and beverage ingredients. I say food and beverage, but flavors are used in many product categories, including confection, pet food, and even medicines.

studentsI was on the program with Dolf DeRovira (Flavor Dynamics) and Richard Pisano, Jr. (Citrus & Allied Essences, Ltd.), two of the most knowledgeable and passionate people in the flavor business.  Dolf is a friendly, excited professor, with an encyclopedic knowledge of flavor ingredients and chemistry. Richard Pisano, Jr. is passionate about essential oils, and you can’t help but get excited when you hear him talk about these important flavor ingredients. Both men are running successful businesses, but they devoted an enormous amount of time developing this course, which they delivered for the third time this week in California. This course is hands-on, so the students smelled and tasted a variety of essential oils and aroma chemicals – the building blocks of flavors.

I was in California with Mat Gulick and Samantha Lee, two hardworking and creative members of the Verto Solutions communications and meetings teams. Before the workshop, Mat and I visited three successful Southern California food companies. You may not have heard of these companies because their sales are business to business, but you’ve no doubt enjoyed their creations.

John Cox and Albert Guerrero in Santa Monica

John Cox and Albert Guerrero (T. Hasegawa) in Santa Monica

Flavor Infusion is located in Orange County and they’re known for accomplishments in beverage flavors, with particular success is Central and South America. T. Hasegawa is headquartered in Japan, but we visited their large facility in Cerritos, CA where they excel at making savory flavors. The photo on the left was taken with Albert Guerrero, their production manager who’s an expert at making reaction flavors. I visited T. Hasegawa the day after Albert completed the Los Angeles Marathon in just over three and a half hours. We also visited California Custom Fruits and Flavors, in Irwindale, CA.  They are leaders in creating fruit preparations for a host of foods like yogurt, breakfast bars, and smoothie bases.

It’s an exciting but challenging time for the food ingredient business. What the food industry has accomplished in taste, safety & value is unprecedented in human history. But some people are questioning foods that are processed, even though it’s the very processing that has enabled the taste, safety & value.

On the trip home I read Mary H.K. Choi’s quirky piece in the New York Times about how much she loves LaCroix Sparkling Water. Choi says her favorite flavor of LaCroix is Pamplemousse and she says that what works for LaCroix is that they have a “suspicion of flavor rather than a bracing burst of taste.” Which made me think: “somebody did a nice job creating that flavor.”

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Getting Started in Government Relations: Advice for Law Students

What kind of positions or opportunities should a graduating law student pursue if they’re interested in government relations?  This is the question I’m trying to answer in this post and when I speak next week to University of Alabama law students that are in DC participating in a government relations externship program. Mike House at Hogan Lovells invited me to share my observations about getting started in DC.

Like many schools today, the University of Alabama recognizes that they must do more to make their students ready to practice law. For the students in Tuscaloosa interested in working in DC after graduation, this program offers an introduction to the city and particularly to working in government relations.

The U.S. Capitol

The U.S. Capitol

Two years ago, I spoke to the students about legal opportunities in the association world. Many association professionals stumble into the field, and this applies to lawyers too. Last year, I conducted a survey of colleagues that have been out of law school for at least ten years, and I shared their observations with the students.

This year I’m focusing on government relations because that’s what many of the students want to pursue when they graduate. When I graduated from law school I had a vague notion that I might want to work in government relations, but first I wanted to work for a Member of Congress. I’ve made some missteps along the way, but in hindsight working on Capitol Hill right after law school was one of the best moves that I’ve made.

The Washington, DC area is an exciting place to live and because the economy is so diverse there are lots of things that a lawyer can do that don’t involve government. I know lawyers that have successful and challenging careers that don’t have anything to do with government; finance, technology, real estate & construction, healthcare, and even professional sports – DC has it all. But if you’re moving here to work in government relations, you should make your first position one with the government.

Once you decide that the government is where you want to begin as a young lawyer, there are two main options; working on Capitol Hill, or for one of the many federal agencies or perhaps eventually experiencing both which I did.

Capitol Hill is one of the most interesting and exciting places to work in DC, as a result, the competition is pretty fierce for the jobs. But it’s also true that there is constant turnover on “the Hill” and if you’re persistent you will eventually find something. I got a break after the historic election of 1994 when my Congressman’s office helped me get a job in the Republican leader’s office. The person that helped me, Jo Bonner, went on to eventually be the Congressman from my hometown, and today he’s the Vice Chancellor of the University of Alabama System.

Cannon House Office Building - U.S. House of Representatives

Cannon House Office Building – U.S. House of Representatives

Capitol Hill isn’t the only place in government where a new lawyer can find a job. The city is home to dozens of federal agencies, and they all employ lawyers. The competition for these jobs is different. Turnover doesn’t happen nearly as often as it does on the Hill, and there is also more “paperwork” and bureaucratic hurdles than in Congressional offices. The good news is that media reports suggest that there is a wave of retirements just getting underway at the federal agencies and these positions will have to be filled.

Working on the Hill will expose you to lots of interesting and important people – Members of Congress, their staff, and lobbyists, that you will likely run into for the rest of your career in DC.  Every day on Capitol Hill presents an opportunity to meet leaders from that district or state.  Mayors, generals, distinguished business people – they all eventually come to Capitol Hill.

While at an agency you will have a chance to go deep on an issue or policy area and that will translate into value down the road. In my blog post last year I made the point that lawyers must eventually become an expert in something, but there’s plenty of time for this.  Deep issue area specialization can happen on the Hill or at an agency, but it’s probably more likely to happen sooner at an agency.

My first “real job” out of college was at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and after law school it was working in the U.S. House of Representatives in the Speaker’s Office.  Both experiences were exciting and to this day I use lessons learned in both of these offices.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - My first "real Job" out of college

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – My first “real job” out of college

You need to have a long term strategy, so it’s fine to take a job with the government even if you know you’re not going to retire there. But make sure that you stay in each position long enough. Looking back there were at least two times in my career when I moved too quickly. Now when I meet people working on the Hill I offer the following advice: Stay as long as you can. There’s no place like Capitol Hill, and once you leave you’ll probably miss it.

When I emerged from law school it was impossible for me to imagine where I am today. My interest in government relations lead me to an association management company which opened my eyes to the association world. Although I do occasionally practice law in my current position, it’s more accurate to say that as an association executive and consultant to associations I’m in a “JD-advantaged” position, meaning the critical thinking and communications skills that I picked up in law school benefit me in my work today even though it’s not the practice of law.

So the bottom line is pretty simple. There are many things that you can do in Washington, DC after law school, but if you want to get involved in government relations down the road your first step should definitely be a position on Capitol Hill or with a federal agency.


Russell Senate Office Building.  A really cool place to work
Russell Senate Office Building. A really cool place to work
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The Year Without Pants and How to Replace Email

Year Without PantsThe Year Without Pants and the future of work is Scott Berkun’s account of his year working for Automattic, Inc. the company behind WordPress, the online, open source website creation software that many consider the easiest and most powerful blogging and website content management system (CMS) available today.

According to Amazon:

50 million websites, or twenty percent of the entire web, use WordPress software. The force behind WordPress.com is a convention-defying company called Automattic, Inc., whose 120 employees work from anywhere in the world they wish, barely use email, and launch improvements to their products dozens of times a day.

WordPress is mostly free to use for anything from a personal blog to a Fortune 500 corporate web site. WordPress was used to create the blog that you’re reading right now.

I picked up this book because it’s about working remotely, or running a “distributed company” as they call it at Automattic, Inc. The story of WordPress is interesting and Berkun has some profound yet simple observations about people and how we communicate at work.

Like many companies in the digital economy, Verto Solutions is struggling a bit with remote work. Most members of the Verto team are passionate and self-sufficient, but when professionals aren’t in the same office it takes extra effort to collaborate and keep projects moving. The Year Without Pants is about the team that is maintaining and continuously improving the WordPress software, while rarely working in their offices in San Francisco.

Commuting, kids, and travel create legitimate reasons for wanting to work remotely. There’s clearly a trend toward adoption of remote or distributed work. Some believe that any organization that works primarily in the digital world can work remotely, but it’s more complicated than that.

Working remotely comes with compromises. Compromises that impact the company, the clients, and the advancement of individual professional careers.  The reason many people want to work remotely is to help manage kids and the household. My wife and I find that the logistical challenges of raising children make it very difficult to work from home.

Working from home probably hurts the employee as much as the company and the clients. But working remotely, or “distributed work” as Berkun calls it, is a fact of life as a result of computers. The average Verto Solutions employee works on a half dozen projects or issues each day. All of these involve using a computer, but they also require collaboration with other members of the Verto team and of course, our clients. Collaboration is how we move things forward and get answers to the tough questions.

So how can we work remotely while maintaining high levels of collaboration and productivity? The book gave me some ideas, such as teams should increase connectivity by using chat and Skype as opposed to email.  In fact, the book helped me find the answer to a question that’s been on my mind lately:  How will we communicate after we stop using email?
shutterstock_132990344Email as we use it today is broken. The volume of email that most professionals receive is unreasonable. One of my new year’s resolutions is to unsubscribe to all the junk mail that makes it through the spam filter. Now that I’m consciously unsubscribing, I’m amazed at how much junk email I was receiving.

Berkun calls it email madness, “where people are so overwhelmed by the waves of email they receive that they protect their psyche by never reading any of it. Instead they skim emails quickly and write and send replies even quicker…What they don’t realize is if they send waves of bad email out, they’re guaranteed to get waves of bad email back…”

Email is a horrible tool for many of the things it’s used for. It puts too much power in the hands of the sender; they can put anything they want in your in-box. Email is also a closed channel, unless you’re one of the addressees you can’t see the conversation. And email goes away, it’s really hard to search and be reminded of previous conversations. All of these problems are solved when a group uses a blog.

Blogs are the collaboration and information sharing tool to replace email. Blogs, the web-based logs enabled by WordPress and many other software products, are an easy way for groups of any size to collaborate and share information. If you haven’t created one they might seem complicated, but fundamentally a blog is just a place where a small or large group of people can see and share information and comment on it. It’s a web page, but thanks to software like WordPress they’re really flexible and easy to create one.

All of the associations managed by Verto Solutions have boards, committees, and task forces. These groups meet in person just a few times per year (just like the teams at Automattic) but they are constantly sharing technical information and collaborating on documents. We all have strategies for dealing with the flood of information, I use folders and project management sheets, others hang on to all of their messages and rely on search to find what they need when they need it. Wouldn’t it be better if you always knew that to get the latest info and all the info on a particular subject you simply go to the blog page for that board, committee or project?

We’ve already created web pages for some of the boards and committees of Verto-managed associations. What I’m talking about is creating blogs for any group or project of any duration that will involve sharing information. Blogs are just less formal web pages that allow everyone to see everything and eliminate the annoying group emails.

Using blogs isn’t a silver bullet and email is part of how blogs work (assuming you sign up to be notified when something’s been posted). Some conversations need to be real time, and in-person conversations convey so much more information when you factor in the eye contact and body language. Email is not going away completely, but we need to stop using it for brainstorming and routine information sharing.

The Year Without Pants doesn’t provide a model of remote work that we could apply at Verto Solutions.  Scott Berkun’s team is made up of young people that work in shorts and don’t appear to have any children or spouses.  They’re young programmers traveling around the world, while remaining productive by living on-line.

But the story did open my eyes to the power of blogs as association management platforms. I wonder which Verto Solutions-managed association will be the first to experiment with using a blog to manage a project?

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What is Strategy?

RoadtoRelevancePerhaps you’ve noticed that strategy is the most overused word in the corporate lexicon.  Not just for-profit corporations, but non-profits too, and it’s also frequently used by military leaders.

So I was comforted by the definition offered by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers in their excellent book about association performance called Road to Relevance: 5 Strategies for Competitive Associations.

Here’s their definition:

Strategy is the skillful, creative, and disciplined use of an organization’s resources to achieve its objectives.

Pretty simple, right?

I was re-reading Road to Relevance in preparation for a hosting a panel discussion next week at the Professional Women in Advocacy Conference. The PWIA organizers invited me to host a panel discussion on delivering value to association members.  On the panel with me will be Chris Krese from the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, Kristin Wilcox from the International Bottled Water Association, and Shannon Campagna from Mars, Inc.  I hope to see you there.

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Innovation for Association Executives

I’m thinking about innovation in the context of managing associations and non-profit enterprises. Innovation is a corporate buzz word, but it’s also a fundamental element in any successful and growing organization.WideLens

This summer I discovered a book about innovation strategy for corporate product launches and I can’t stop thinking about applying these concepts to associations. The concept involved is using a “wide lens” when preparing a product or service innovation.

The book is The Wide Lens, by Ron Adner. Adner teaches strategy at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His Harvard Business Review article, “Match Your Innovation Strategy to Your Innovation Ecosystem” is assigned reading in over fifty global MBA programs.

Innovation, Adner says, is a “problem for everyone because it is held up as the solution for everything.” But despite the excitement, Adner says that successful innovation remains the exception rather than the rule.

I saw this book on a friend’s home office desk this summer in Connecticut.  My friend works in corporate strategy for a major telecommunications company.  His team thinks about the future and helps their senior managers chart the company’s course.

The Wide Lens is about the difference between great innovations that succeed and great innovations that fail. Adner’s point is that it’s not just about whether or not the innovation is a good idea, because “no matter your situation, your success depends not just on your own efforts but also on the ability, willingness, and likelihood that the partners that make up your innovation ecosystem succeed as well.”

He focuses on innovative products that failed to launch. Examples include a Michelin tire that never went flat, Sony’s first electronic reader, and Pfizer’s inhalable insulin. Each of these failed in spite of massive investments and strong consumer desire for these innovative products.

The experts on innovation fall into two schools of thought in explaining the sources of failure and the path to success:

“The first school argues that most innovation failures are rooted in a shortfall in customer insight. Introducing a genuinely new product or service is not enough; if customers don’t see the innovation as uniquely valuable, or are unwilling to pay the required price, then the innovation will not succeed…The second school argues that failure is rooted in shortcomings of leadership and implementation. They claim that the key to success lies in building better capabilities for execution and implementation that will enable us to deliver on our promises and beat the competition.”

In the association world the most common barriers to innovation fall in the second category. Delivering a new idea in the association ecosystem is challenging because of the diversity and power of so many stakeholders. Corporations have shareholders, but these people normally rely on management to continuously innovate to remain profitable. Associations have stakeholders who care passionately about their industry or profession and they take greater responsibility for managing the association and deciding which innovations are worth pursuing.

Innovation in the association world is underappreciated. Given the competitive forces most associations face, every association executive should have a list of innovations in the pipeline.

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